The Kyle Hendricks Who Nearly Won the Cy Young Award Appears to Be Gone
Last season was all about the Chicago Cubs. I mean, when a team snaps a 108-year title drought, it's kind of noteworthy.
But even without the loveable losers narrative, the Cubs' story was still a great one. It was a tale of remarkable rebuilding, pure domination and breathtaking young talent. The 2016 Cubbies were pretty much the perfect baseball team -- elite on the mound, in the field and at the plate, with an ideal mix of seasoned veterans and energetic youngsters -- and they won it all in one of the better baseball games anyone has ever seen.
One of the big reasons for the Cubs' rise under Joe Maddon over the past few years has been the performance of Kyle Hendricks. The young righty went from an unheralded prospect to an elite performer, checking in ahead of maybe-not-humans Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner on his way to a third-place finish in the 2016 Cy Young voting.
But Hendricks has struggled mightily in 2017. He's lost a few ticks off his heater, and he's not limiting hard contact like he used to. Because of his repertoire -- read: lack of swing-and-miss stuff -- Hendricks has always had less margin for error than most top-notch pitchers. He hasn't been able to walk that fine line this year, and there aren't many signs of a turnaround.
Different From the Others
On a team filled with top prospects and big-name talent, Hendricks was an exception, a guy for whom stardom was not predicted.
He got results, though.
Here's a list of the ERA leaders since the start of the 2015 season (among pitchers who have thrown at least 170 innings), and sure enough, there's our boy Hendricks, sitting pretty alongside some of the game's best arms.
|Clayton Kershaw||381 2/3||1.96|
|Jake Arrieta||436 1/3||2.39|
|Jacob deGrom||381 1/3||2.79|
|Noah Syndergaard||333 2/3||2.89|
|Jon Lester||407 2/3||2.89|
Hendricks certainly proved his worth with a pair of outstanding seasons in 2015 and 2016, but even when he was excelling, there was a shade of doubt around how legitimate his success was.
Some of that skepticism probably stemmed from Hendricks' lack of prospect pedigree -- he's not even listed in Baseball America's 2013 ranking of the Cubs' top 31 prospects -- but a lot of it was due to how Hendricks succeeded. Instead of racking up strikeouts like most top-end hurlers, Hendricks put up good numbers despite of a lack of whiffs or a mid-90s heater.
Let's look at those same 10 starters from above, but this time we'll compare their strikeout rate and xFIP -- which estimates what a pitcher's ERA should have been independent of the performance of their defense -- along with each pitcher's corresponding rank in the two advanced stats.
Getting less strikeouts than guys like Kershaw, Bumgarner and Max Scherzer is nothing to be ashamed of since those guys get more whiffs than 99% of humans on Earth. But Hendricks' strikeout rate and xFIP show us that while his ERA ranked him -- Greinke is lumped in here, too -- as an elite pitcher, he wasn't actually performing like one.
He was a control artist who thrived by limiting walks and inducing soft contact. Over 2015 and 2016, Hendricks put up a 5.5% walk rate while generating soft-hit balls 21.9% of the time and only allowing a 25.8% hard-hit rate. Both of those batted-ball marks rank in the top 12 across the past two seasons.
But as great as Hendricks was at managing the contact he permitted -- which offset his lack of strikeouts -- there aren't many examples of pitchers taking that route and putting up big-time numbers on a consistent basis.
We have to mention the Cubs' spectacular defense in 2016, which was an imperative aid for a pitcher who didn't get a bunch of punchouts. Calling the Cubs' defense "spectacular" is somehow a slap in the face.
Their defense finished with an Ultimate Zone Rating of 73.0, miles ahead of the San Francisco Giants' second-place clip of 47.7. The canyon between the Cubbies and San Fran was nearly as big as the gap between the Giants and the ninth-place Boston Red Sox (22.2). If Addison Russell, the Cubs' defensive wizard at shortstop, and Hendricks were out to dinner, Russell probably didn't need to bother bringing his wallet.
What's Gone Wrong?
Everything -- everything has gone wrong.
There are a lot of reasons Hendricks has struggled in 2017 as his peripherals have taken a dip across the board.
The following is list of a few stats in which Hendricks currently sports a career-worst number (excluding his brief debut season) -- strikeout rate, walk rate, swinging-strike rate and hard-hit rate. In pretty much, you know, all the stats that matter, Hendricks is performing as poorly as he ever has.
|Year||Strikeout Rate||Swinging-Strike Rate||Walk Rate||Hard-Hit Rate||xFIP|
Similar to the Fyre Music Festival -- there's nothing good to see here. Sure, the sample size isn't huge (61 2/3 innings pitched this year), but these stats are well past the point of stabilization. Of course, a 4.03 xFIP isn't actually that bad considering the league average this season is 4.30, but it's certainly not up to the standard he set in previous seasons.
Maybe it's too simplistic, but I think a lot of this can be traced back to one thing: a drop in fastball velocity.
Hendricks' fastball is averaging a blah 86.0 miles per hour this season after checking in at 89.7 (2016) and 89.9 (2015) in previous seasons. His heater is the third-slowest among starters who have worked at least 50 innings this year.
A drop of nearly three miles per hour is mighty significant, and you don't need me to tell you what big leaguers can do to an 86 miles-per-hour fastball.
I'll show ya, though.
Before this 3-run 💣 Sunday, Stephen Piscotty hadn't hit a HR since April 15th. pic.twitter.com/Oz52ULsEbN
— All StlCards (@AllStlCards) June 5, 2017
Obviously, a slower heater leads to fewer whiffs and more hard contact, but it may also be responsible for the rise in walks. Hendricks' superb 5.9% walk rate from last season was actually a career-worst mark up to that point in his professional career, including the minor leagues, so it's hard to believe he suddenly just lost his pristine command. Sure, this is speculation, but Hendricks may be walking more batters because he knows he has to be pinpoint perfect with his weakened fastball, and he's terrified of leaving it out over the plate.
The loss of some ticks on the radar gun has also negatively impacted Hendricks' changeup. Not only is the change his best pitch, it was the best change in baseball last season, per Fangraphs' pitch value data.
This season, however, among the starters with at least 50 innings pitched, Hendricks' changeup ranks fourth -- on the Cubs. Overall, his change-piece checks in 101st out of the 112 pitchers with enough changeups thrown to qualify. What was one of the best pitches in the game has become one of the worst.
Can He Bounce Back?
Anytime a pitcher loses this much velocity this quickly, there's always the chance he's injured. Counting the postseason, Hendricks tossed a career-high 215 1/3 frames in 2016, with most of his playoff innings being of the high-stress variety. He may have had trouble bouncing back after a big workload and shorter-than-usual offseason.
We'll probably never know if Hendricks was operating at less than 100% to open the campaign, but he's definitely hurt now -- and it doesn't look good.
He hit the disabled list June 8th with hand tendonitis after his latest troublesome start as he got rocked for four runs over four innings, walking three and fanning three. Ostensibly, the injury isn't related to his elbow or shoulder -- a definite positive -- and is is believed to be minor, but he hasn't been able to shake the ailment, with the Cubs recently pushing back his return date.
We obviously can't fully evaluate Hendricks' performance if he's been injured all along, but it's hard to believe the Cubs would keep running him out there every fifth day if he was banged up. Time will tell if he can get his velocity back and return to his ways of old. For now, though, it looks like the masterful pitching he displayed in 2015 and 2016 is the work of a different guy.
There's more than one way to pitch, but velocity matters. Dudes who throw 95 can get away with missing over the plate, and pitchers who rack up strikeouts have the ability to remove themselves (more than other guys can) from the randomness of balls in play.
As hurlers like Hendricks and Dallas Keuchel have shown, you can be very successful in today's game without throwing 95. It's really dang hard, though.
To be one of those exceptions, you need a lot of other things to work in your favor -- namely you have to limit walks, get grounders, pitch in front of a good defense and possess some nasty off-speed stuff. If any of those boxes aren't checked, a soft tosser is in trouble.
Hendricks isn't checking any of those boxes so far in 2017, and unless his drop in performance is related to an injury and his upper 80s fastball returns, the days of Hendricks being an elite preventer of runs look like a thing of the past.